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Not good news. More than half of Americans’ calories come from “ultra-processed foods,” according to a new study published in BMJ OpenUltra-processed foods were defined as "formulations of several ingredients which, besides salt, sugar, oils and fats, include food substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular, flavours, colours, sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product". Whew....In other words, they're not real foods, but fake or pseudo foods with lots of added stuff that doesn't occur naturally. Examples are instant soups, sodas, many frozen meals, cake mixes, packaged snacks, energy drinks, syrups (excluding maple syrup). Ultra-processed foods account for about 90% or almost all of the added sugars Americans eat.

Food can be classified 4 ways: unprocessed or minimally processed foods (such as fresh, dry or frozen fruits or vegetables, grains, legumes, meat, fish and milk); processed culinary ingredients (including table sugar, oils, fats, salt, and other substances extracted from foods or from nature, and used in kitchens to make culinary preparations); processed foods (foods manufactured with the addition of salt or sugar or other substances of culinary use to unprocessed or minimally processed foods, such as canned food and simple breads and cheese) and ultra-processed foods (see above for definition). It's time for Americans to cut back on ultra-processed foods and take Michael Pollan's advice on how to improve our health: "Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants." From Medical Xpress:

'Ultra-processed' foods make up more than half of all calories in US diet

'Ultra-processed' foods make up more than half of all calories consumed in the US diet, and contribute nearly 90% of all added sugar intake, finds research published in the online journal BMJ Open. Ultra-processed foods are formulations of several ingredients. Besides salt, sugar, oils and fats, they include substances not generally used in cooking, such as flavourings, emulsifiers, and other additives designed to mimic the qualities of 'real foods'.

Ultra-processed foods include mass produced soft drinks; sweet or savoury packaged snacks; confectionery and desserts; packaged baked goods; chicken/fish nuggets and other reconstituted meat products; instant noodles and soups.

To assess the contribution of ultra-processed foods to the intake of added sugars in the US diet, the researchers drew on dietary data involving more than 9000 people from the 2009-10 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), an ongoing nationally representative cross sectional survey of US civilians. They looked at the average dietary content of added sugars and the proportion of people who consumed more than 10% of their total energy intake—the maximum recommended limit—from this source. 

Ultra-processed foods made up over half of total calorie intake (just under 60%) and contributed almost 90% of energy intake from added sugarsAdded sugars represented 1 in every 5 calories in the average ultra-processed food product—far higher than the calorie content of added sugars in processed foods and in unprocessed or minimally processed foods and processed culinary ingredients, including table sugar, combined. A strong linear association emerged between the dietary content of ultra-processed foods and the overall dietary intake of added sugars. Furthermore, the proportion of people exceeding the recommended upper limit of 10% of energy from added sugars was far higher when ultra-processed food consumption was high, rising to more than 80% among those who ate the most ultra-processed foods.

Notably, only those Americans whose ultra-processed food consumption was within the lowest 20% had an average daily added sugar intake that fell below the maximum recommended limit. Several leading health bodies, including the World Health Organization, the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation, the American Heart Association, and the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee have concluded that excess added sugar intake increases the risk not only of weight gain, but also of obesity and diabetes, which are associated with a heightened risk of cardiovascular disease, and tooth decay. Cutting back on the consumption of ultra-processed foods could be an effective way of curbing excessive added sugar intake in the US, conclude the researchers.

Trans fats are commonly used in processed foods to improve taste, texture, and shelf life. Artificial trans fats are found in partially hydrogenated oils and in other ingredients, such as refined oils, emulsifiers, flavors and colors. Even those processed foods that say zero trans fats may contain trans fats - due to a loophole in labeling laws (if it has less than .5 grams per serving, then it can be rounded down to zero - thus allowing the incorrect claim of zero trans fats). Eating a variety of processed foods, each containing a little trans fats, easily adds up to eating a significant amount daily.Trans fats in the diet have long been linked to cardiovascular disease, artherosclerosis, obesity, oxidative stress, and inflammation, but now research finds that it is linked to a poorer memory in middle-aged men under the age of 45. From Science Daily:

Dietary trans fat linked to worse memory

Higher consumption of dietary trans fatty acids (dTFA), commonly used in processed foods to improve taste, texture and durability, has been linked to worsened memory function in men 45 years old and younger, according to a study.

Researchers evaluated data from 1,018 men and women who were asked to complete a dietary survey and memory test involving word recall. On average, men aged 45 and younger recalled 86 words; however, for each additional gram of trans fats consumed daily, performance dropped by 0.76 words. This translates to an expected 12 fewer words recalled by young men with dTFA intake levels matching the highest observed in the study, compared to otherwise similar men consuming no trans fats.

After adjusting for age, exercise, education, ethnicity and mood, the link between higher dTFA and poorer memory was maintained in men 45 and younger.The study focused predominantly on men because of a small number of women in this age group. However, including women in the analysis did not change the finding, said Golomb. An association of dTFA to word memory was not observed in older populations. Golomb said this is likely due to dietary effects showing more clearly in younger adults. Insults and injuries to the brain accrue with age and add variability to memory scores that can swamp ability to detect diet effects.

Trans fatty acids have been linked to negative effects on lipid profiles, metabolic function, insulin resistance, inflammation and cardiac and general health. In 2013, the United States Food and Drug Administration issued a preliminary determination that trans fats were no longer generally recognized as safe. According to the Centers for Disease Control, reducing dTFA consumption could prevent 10,000 to 20,000 heart attacks and 3,000 to 7,000 coronary heart disease deaths per year in the U.S.

Once again, research finds that eating highly processed foods is not the best, this time for cognitive performance of 17 year olds. From Medical Xpress:

Western diet leads to poorer performance

Higher intake of a western diet by 14-year-olds has been linked with diminished cognitive performance at age 17.

Researchers found that participants with a western dietary pattern—characterised by high intakes of takeaway food, red and processed meat, soft drink, fried and refined food—scored lower in cognitive tasks, particularly those involving reaction time/psychomotor function, visual attention, learning and memory.

Chips and crisps came in for a particular drubbing: their high consumption was significantly associated with longer reaction times on detection tasks. In contrast to their peers, study participants with a high intake of fruits and leafy vegetables had better cognitive performance, which lead researcher Dr Anett Nyaradi says could be due to increased micronutrient content. This includes folate from leafy green vegetables, which previous research has linked to enhanced cognitive development.

Led by UWA and the Telethon Kids Institute, the study involved 602 members of the Western Australian Pregnancy Cohort (Raine) Study....Dr Nyaradi says several factors may be at play in this diet-related decline in cognitive skills, including the level of omega-6 fatty acids in fried foods and red meat.

Metabolic pathways function best with a balanced 1:1 ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, but the western diet can shift this to a 1:20 or 1:25 ratio.High intake of saturated fat and simple carbohydrates has been linked to impairment in the functioning of the hippocampus, a brain structure centrally involved in learning and memory that increases its volume during adolescence, Dr Nyaradi says.

"Adolescence represents a critical time period for brain development. It is possible that poor diet is a significant risk factor during this period…indeed, our findings support this proposition."